American rally

Published : May 22, 2009 00:00 IST

VENEZUELAN PRESIDENT HUGO Chavez gives the book "Open Veins of Latin America" by Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano to U.S. President Barack Obama during the summit, on April 18.-M WATSON/AFP

VENEZUELAN PRESIDENT HUGO Chavez gives the book "Open Veins of Latin America" by Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano to U.S. President Barack Obama during the summit, on April 18.-M WATSON/AFP

ONE of the lasting images from the recently concluded Summit of the Americas was President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela going to United States President Barack Obamas seat and presenting him with a copy of the book Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent by Eduardo Galeano. Chavez was reciprocating Obamas gesture of walking up to him to greet him at the opening of the summit.

The book by Galeano, who has a fan following rivalling Gabriel Garcia Marques in Latin America, was first published in the early 1990s. The author has been regularly updating the book, which chronicles the exploitation of the region by colonial powers and U.S. corporations. It has been a bestseller in Latin America and now, thanks to Chavezs gesture, is an international bestseller too.

Obama, who was in listening mode during the summit, told journalists that he was a reader. The people of Latin America now hope that the American President will be able to use the book as a guide post while formulating his administrations policies towards the region and the Caribbean.

Chavez also told Obama in English that he wants to be a friend of the new President. Chavez, like many in the continent, had nothing but disdain for George W. Bush. Bush had tried to orchestrate a coup in 2002 against his government. According to reports, U.S. intelligence agents had ordered the assassination of Chavez when he was briefly held in custody by the coup plotters. Chavez and most of the leaders assembled in Trinidad for the summit felt that Obama is somebody whom they can do business with. The political realities of the region have changed in the past eight years. The states of the region have formed new political alliances and economic groupings excluding the U.S.

The fifth Summit of the Americas, held in Port of Spain, Trinidad, in the third week of April, was Obamas first official interaction with the heads of Latin American and Caribbean states. The summit was the brainchild of the Clinton administration to bring together the leaders of the Organisation of American States (OAS) once every five years. The goal originally was to further Washingtons globalisation agenda. But that is now a mirage. Many of the leaders present in Trinidad were elected on the basis of their opposition to the U.S hegemonic policies.

Before leaving for the summit, Obama had talked of dealing with hemispheric issues on an equal footing with his fellow heads of state. There was also talk of the new administrations willingness to engage diplomatically with Cuba after 50 years of unremitting hostility. Coincidentally, the day the summit started was the date on which the U.S. launched its ill-fated invasion of Cuba in 1961.

Obama had announced that some of the travel restrictions on Cuban-Americans wishing to visit their close relatives on the island would be lifted and the amount of money that they could remit to relatives back home would be raised. This move was hailed in the American media as a radical break from past policies.

But there have been no concrete steps to relax the economic blockade, which has caused much misery to the Cuban people, even slightly. President Raul Castro said that the Cuban government was willing to engage diplomatically with the U.S. in response to the move by the Obama administration.

We are willing to discuss everything human rights, freedom of the press, political prisoners, everything, everything they want to talk about, but they keep their conditions without even attempting to respect Cuban sovereignty, while violating the Cuban peoples right of self-determination, Raul Castro said at a meeting of leaders from the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA), held a few days before the Trinidad summit. ALBA, a regional grouping consisting of Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Honduras and Dominica, was formed to counter the American-sponsored Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA).

Leader of the Cuban revolution and former President Fidel Castro wrote that the steps taken by Obama were positive, although minimal. Fidel Castro felt that the changes did not go far enough. He pointed out that Obama had chosen not to utter a word so far on the blockade, which he described as a genocidal measure, whose damage cannot be calculated on the basis of its economic effects. In fact, the Obama administration, just after taking over, had penalised a French company, which supplied milk products to Cuba. Obamas main adviser during the Trinidad Summit was Jeffrey Davidow. Davidow, a career foreign service officer, was in Chile during the coup against the elected government in the early 1970s. After that he was assigned to South Africa, where he helped the apartheid regime mount covert operations to destabilise Angola and Mozambique. He has also played a major role in Plan Colombia, the U.S.-funded counter-insurgency programme.

While Obama was pressing for a new diplomacy, Davidow was practising the old, wrote Tom Hayden in an article. Hayden is a prominent American political activist. Obamas choice of advisers is a clear sign that American policy on Latin America is not likely to undergo radical changes.

During the eight-year presidency of George W. Bush, the region, once considered Washingtons political backyard, had begun to chart out its own economic and political course. The Bush administrations war on terror had very few takers in Latin America. According to opinion polls, he was the most hated U.S. President in Latin America. The people of the region were the first to turn their backs on the International Monetary Fund/World Bank propagated neoliberal economic policies. Unlike the elites in countries such as India, the intellectuals and the people of the Americas strived politically to get out of the embrace of the colossus of the North the U.S.

And in the last couple of years, the region has spoken as one on the economic blockade on Cuba. For the first time Latin American countries held a summit, hosted by Brazil late last year, pointedly excluding the U.S. Cuba took its designated place at that summit. Cuba was of course not present at Trinidad. It was expelled from the OAS in 1962 soon after the revolution under Washingtons orders. At that time almost all Latin American countries toed the U.S. line, except Mexico.

Today, the reverse is happening. The only Latin American country that does not have diplomatic relations with Cuba is El Salvador. It is only a question of time before diplomatic relations are established between the two. The left-wing FMLN, which has close links with Cuba, has won the presidential election in El Salvador.

There was a strong demand at the summit that Cuba be invited back into the OAS. Chavez said in his speech that the grouping would be incomplete without the presence of Cuba. Almost all the leaders present called on the U.S. to change its policy towards Cuba. Argentinas President Christina Kirchner demanded the lifting of the anachronistic blockade on Cuba. President Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua, in his speech, said, [I am] ashamed of the fact that I am participating in a summit with the absence of Cuba. Cubas only crime, he declared, was fighting for the sovereignty of its people. Caribbean Community (CARICOM) members at the summit called on the U.S. government to reverse its policy of non-engagement with Cuba.

But the Cuban government is not all that keen on rejoining a club that was used for long as an instrument to destabilise the revolution. The OAS chief, Jose Miguel Insulza, said that Cuba should adhere to democratic principles if it wanted to be readmitted.

In response to Insulzas statement, Fidel Castro wrote that Cuba would not join the OAS in its present form as it was an incarnation of betrayal. He emphasised that the OAS was an accomplice of the U.S. in its aggressive actions towards Cuba for the past five decades. The United States doesnt have any right to speak about democracy, because from over there they install coups detat, said Bolivian President Evo Morales. The U.S. had unscrupulously used the OAS to isolate Cuba. Until a few years ago, the U.S. used its influence to veto any discussion on Cuba.

But, as the latest summit exemplified, those days are over. Cuba was at the centre of the debates in Trinidad. To show their solidarity with Cuba, OAS members, led by countries such as Nicaragua and Venezuela, ensured that a Declaration of Port of Spain was not signed as was envisaged. Obama, in a press conference after the summit, conceded that U.S. policies against Cuba in the past 50 years had not succeeded in destabilising the government there.

With capitalism in crisis, the people of the region are looking to the Cuban model for inspiration. Though the economic blockade has caused considerable hardship for the economy, the tangible benefits of the revolution for the Cuban people in health, education and other fields are there for all to see. Chavez said recently that the Cuban economic model was the one to be emulated.

Socialism is the way forward, said Chavez, and if election results in recent years are an indication, most of Latin America and the region agrees with him.

Chavez, Morales and Rafael Correa of Ecuador have already started nationalising important assets for the benefit of their people. The Obama administration views these developments as a strategic threat to U.S. interests. The U.S. gets around 40 per cent of its oil and gas from the region. Despite the bonhomie displayed at the summit between Obama and Chavez, Washington will continue to view left-wing governments as a threat to the empire. An assassination plot against Morales was thwarted a few days before the Trinidad summit. Both Bolivia and Venezuela had expelled American envoys for interfering in the domestic affairs of their countries.

Obama criticised Chavez again during his interaction with the media in Trinidad. While running for President, Obama had said that Chavez exports terrorism and was an obstacle to progress in the region. But Chavez, for the time being, seems to have given Obama the benefit of the doubt and is keen to re-establish normal diplomatic relations with Washington. He declared that the summit was the most successful he has attended in this decade. He told reporters that the summit opened the doors to a new era of rationality among all countries.

Morales, however, has no such illusions about the Obama presidency. One hundred days have gone by and we in Bolivia have yet to feel any changes. The policy of conspiracy continues, said Morales.

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